Chinese soprano’s exciting debut sparks Lyric’s second-cast “Aida”

Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 12:16 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Hui He in the title role and Quinn Kelsey as Amonasro in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Aida.” Photo: Dan Rest

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is closing its season with a second-cast run of Verdi’s Aida, which opened Tuesday night.

Due to the eternal vagaries of voices, casting, and conditions, it’s by no means a given that second cast invariably means second best. For a variety of reasons, such was the case with last season’s Carmen at Lyric Opera and so it proved again with cast deux of Aida.

The first run boasted impressive star-power with Marcello Giordani and Sondra Radvanovsky as the doomed lovers, but the current cast proved vocally just as strong and dramatically much more compelling, making for greater, more consistently combustible results.

The night largely belonged to Hui He, who is making her company debut in the role of the captured Ethiopian princess. The Chinese singer made a stellar Chicago bow Tuesday, showing a classic Verdi soprano voice—big, gleaming, plush of tone, evenly produced and able to ride thrillingly over the massed ensembles. She also showed notable artistry in the quieter moments with her refined phrasing and shimmering pianissimos, as in her beautifully turned O patria mia, which earned a resounding ovation.

He’s acting is a bit rudimentary and her O terra addio could have used more delicacy opening night. But this was an outstanding house debut by any measurement and one that should earn her a quick invitation back to Chicago.

Marco Berti proved an admirable Radames, large of body and voice, albeit with a somewhat dry undertone. The Italian tenor is a less nuanced actor than his compatriot Giordani, but did everything expected vocally in this tortuous role, bringing  expressive sensitivity to the final scene.

Anna Smirnova’s indeterminate Italian was an ongoing issue and the Russian mezzo possesses a powerful top, but is notably weaker in the middle and lower registers. Still, if not bringing the kind of rounded complexity to Amneris that made Jill Grove such a fascinating villainess in the opening cast, Smirnova’s was a worthy performance rising effectively to the conflicted emotions of the penultimate scene.

Quinn Kelsey offered a stentorian, vividly etched Amonasro while Stefan Kocan’s febrile bass brought a decidedly Slavic flavor to Ramfis.

Nicolas Joel’s elegant production works its magic while avoiding the usual tropes. Renato Palumbo again supplied blazing and idiomatic musical direction and under the direction of Michael Black the chorus sang with lusty fervor and plush, polished sonority in the large ensembles.

Aida runs through March 25.; 312-332-2244.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Chinese soprano’s exciting debut sparks Lyric’s second-cast “Aida””

  1. Posted Mar 07, 2012 at 12:27 am by Joan Staples

    I have seen quite a few performances of Aida, including in Rome, and this was one of the best. Pavarotti had the best tenor voice, but the soprano tonight was fantastic. Quinn was also in beautiful voice. Hope to see the lovely Chinese singer in more operas!

  2. Posted Mar 07, 2012 at 12:54 pm by Silfredo Serrano

    Not only were her pianissimi beautiful, but dared crescendo on the top C in O Patria Mia, as if just getting to the note weren’t difficult enough. This is truly an outstanding voice and technique.

  3. Posted Mar 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm by Lisa

    Couldn’t agree more about Hui He’s mastery of the title role. I haven’t been that impressed in quite a while.

    But Berti’s Radames was as ill cast as He’s was fortunate. His struggle to stay on pitch ended in a–was it a gurgle?–in the end of the third act during the March 10 performance, from which he apparently never recovered, giving a very weak last act.

    Regarding the staging itself, the dances were painful to watch, the moving director’s chair of a throne was pitiful (did they have to pay extra insurance lest Pharaoh should fall off that ridiculous perch?), and was that the cast of Avatar that showed up as the Ethiopian prisoners? Really, Lyric’s commitment to being ‘anything but the Met’ goes beyond laughable sometimes.

    For the amount of money I spent on attending this performance, I wish I had saved the money for a trip to New York, where I’ve never been tempted to laugh out loud during a performance.

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